It took the light forever to get to your eyes… We need better academic freedom cases

Back in 2016, Judy Wilyman was awarded a PhD by the University of Wollongong.  This upset a large number of people as her PhD thesis — a study of how the Australian Government’s vaccination policies were developed — included tangential remarks about the validity of studies into vaccination itself.

Unlike most people commenting on the thesis, I actually read the damn thing.  The bulk of it was fine; the tangential comments were embarrassing.

But the pop-science community was out for a scalp.  The University of Wollongong was inundated with vexatious complaints about Wilyman, but the University stood by Wilyman.

The controversy resulted in an article in Vaccine: ‘Public Health and the Necessary Limits of Academic Freedom?‘  Durrheim and Jones argued that the ‘principle of independent scholarship should continue to be prized but in our view it cannot be entirely unfettered. Academic autonomy must be balanced by ethical accountability and responsibility, particularly in the field of human health.’

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Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts… The public debate of war crimes

Before tackling the beefier part of this idea, step back and look at the landscape of how contemporary opinion writing works.  You usually get one author (or two who collaborate on the development of the opinion) to espouse this or that view.  The hope is that there will be some response to the call: ‘This opinion argues (S, x), you need to look elsewhere for (S, y).’

We are more familiar with the toxic variant of this dynamic.  (S, x) is a manifestly outrageous opinion, designed to stir up click bait and reactions; (S, y) is equally manifestly outrageous, but advancing the contrary opinion.

Importantly, the two authors never have to engage each other seriously.  Instead of imagining this as a public square, we should imagine political debate to be the suburban backyards of two elderly neighbours who overplay how much they hate each other.  Debate is frequently more about throwing garbage over the fence in response to imagined sleights.

Continue reading “Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts… The public debate of war crimes”

I’m living in an age that calls darkness light… Anonymity and political participation

For very exciting reasons–completely unrelated to Twitter Drama–I have had to turn my mind to anonymity in the political process.  Electoral laws around Australia express an expectation that, if you’re campaigning or attempting to influence the outcome of an election, you have to give up your anonymity to do so.  Put an ad on television? Authorised by the party officer, Canberra. Put flier in a letter box? Authorised by the party officer, Canberra. Run a campaign to encourage people to vote for the Party because they are good for your cause? Authorised by the lobby group, Canberra.

That last one is the focus of my attention lately.  What does it mean to attempt to affect the way a person votes, and when should you fall over the threshold between a private citizen engaging in political communication that is implied to be free and a campaigner who needs to disclose their identity?

Continue reading “I’m living in an age that calls darkness light… Anonymity and political participation”

Quick Post: Correcting the errors of @PRGuy17 and #ThisIsNotJournalism

It is a weird world in which we find me defending journalists but welcome to the Year of Our Lord Score Hundred and Score.

In a recent blog post, I argued that one reason political debates were fracturing was that we did not have a clear idea of what we want from political media. It was the lack of this clarity that caused all kinds of mischief in the rest of our critiques, including what we mean by bias, ‘fake news’, &c., &c.

I noted that, although the disenchantment with the political media was traditionally associated with the disengaged, there was a new class of ‘hyper-engaged’ media consumers who felt entitled to see their own views — no matter their accuracy — reflected in the mainstream media.  This desire to see their own version of events parroted back to them is described as ‘accuracy’.

Most mysteriously of all, the tropes and narratives of the group closely resemble those deployed during the #Gamergate saga.  Where in the past journos would probably deserve a half dozen people sledging them for getting their facts wrong, now we have journos contending with hundreds of (mostly male) Twitter accounts hurling abuse.  Inexplicably, otherwise intelligent people have felt that, due to the ongoing sins of the media industry (particularly with regard to racism and misogyny) that attacks on female journalists and commentators from ethnic minorities is somehow justifiable.

Into this fray steps one of the key voices: PRGuy17.  Very likely to be a political staffer for the ALP, ‘he lives in Melbourne but works in Canberra’.  And he really, really cares about the media being ‘fair’ to Dan Andrews… beause he’s broken.

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Pattern language, in the mood for love… Is there any hope for political satire?

Over on Inside Story, Emeritus Professor Jane Goodall gave an overview of the problem of political satire in the United States: what should be the role of satirists in critiquing the Trump administration?  It’s very much a preliminary overview, not adding much to the discussion about political satire, simply updating it with current examples.

Academic literature on the question of ‘news satire’ is not sparse.  Essay after essay explores the question of precisely what the phenomenon is, what its effects are, and its scope for development.  What the academic literature tends to overlook, however, is the actual motivation behind news satire: profit.

It is easier to understand our political media environment if you disregard idealistic notions about democracy and intellectual liberalism, and instead focus on what the incentives are for media producers.  If producing biased, inflammatory, unreasonable content is profitable, it will be published.

The same lens should be applied to political satire.

Continue reading “Pattern language, in the mood for love… Is there any hope for political satire?”

Sometimes love is not enough and the road gets tough, I don’t know why… How to improve political debates

There are a lot of Australian hot takes about the US Presidential debate.   There is no good reason for the vast majority of them to exist.  We now have access to some of the finest hot takes directly from the US — hot takes that are sensitive to the nuances and details of the US electoral system that are completely alien to us here in Australia.  When it comes to US politics, hide Australian threads, ignore Australian posts, and do not reply to Australian posters.

What we can reflect on — and, indeed, should reflect on — is how we can improve political debate in Australia so that we do not end up with the shitshow that is the United States.  To answer that question, we need a really crisp idea of precisely what it is that we want from our political system and our political media.

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I’m looking and I’m dreaming for the first time… The art of the good review

Jessie Tu’s debut novel was published recently: A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing.  There was a splash of press as Tu tried desperately to convince everybody that she was edgy and had something to say.  In one interview, she complained that she had started studying law but gave it up because she was too edgy (law students are famously not edgy) and had something to say (law students are famously reserved in their opinions).  But it had been written with the support of an Australia Council grant, so we all had to take a moment to applaud how our taxpayer dollars were supporting the edgiest and most full-of-things-to-say upcoming authors who were definitely going to shake the establishment.

Two months later, Tu has returned to centre stage with a review of another debut novel: The Morbids by Ewa Ramsey.  And the review is… bad.

Continue reading “I’m looking and I’m dreaming for the first time… The art of the good review”

I want to sail away to a distant shore and make like an Apeman… Should the BBC/ABC have conservative comedians?

It is wrong to isolate some questions from their contexts.  It has been reported that the new Director-General of the BBC, Tim Davie, will ‘tackle the perceived left-wing bias’ of BBC content, including comedy.  Naturally, this has inspired the usual reaction: how dare anybody suggest that conservatives should get anything?

Guardian columnist Owen Jones went a bit further, stating:

The reason there’s a lack of “right wing” comedy is it mostly just isn’t funny. There therefore isn’t a big market for it. It’s a victim of market forces.

Of course, this comment was more troll than contribution to the debate, but I want to tackle the range of this idea from a right wing perspective.  Admittedly, this is going to be more about the Australian public broadcaster, the ABC, simply because I’m much more familiar with it than the BBC.  But the broad strokes of the argument should be the same.

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I’m still at large engaged with my entourage… Anonymity, privacy, and public debate

ABC’s Media Watch started a flurried debate about anonymity in public debate, situated in the context of misogynist abuse hurled at female journalists on social media.

[P]unishing trolls only works if they can be identified. And often they can’t.  […]

Personally, I reckon naming and shaming is the only way. And if Twitter won’t do it, others have to.

So, watch this space and we’ll see what we can do.

Today, the Courier Mail splashed the images of two teenage girls on the front cover with the title: ‘Enemies of the State’.  Somehow, information about their medical history had got into the hands of the newspaper and their editors saw fit to put it on the front page.

This week, Junkee made the decision to anonymise authorship of posts criticising celebrities.

It’s disappointing that we have to do this. It’s a sad indictment on this particular element of the music industry, and it runs counter to Junkee Media’s editorial code, which says that all content should have a byline unless there’s a good reason not to. Sadly, we have a good reason not to, and it’s the health and wellbeing of our staff.

So there’s jostling in this space.  Journalists want to pierce the anonymity veil of ordinary members of the public, but also want to put the veil up for its own writers.

Continue reading “I’m still at large engaged with my entourage… Anonymity, privacy, and public debate”

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin… Of cancel culture (and other scary beasts)

There are no formal barriers to being a writer — not even to being a journalist.  There’s no education requirement.  No exam.  No registration.  You don’t need to convince a panel that you’re a fit and proper person.

Hell, you don’t even need to be able to write.  Australia is lousy with stale and crusty doyens of journalism whose first drafts look like they vomitted alphabetti spaghetti all over a Word document.

Why, then, do we care what these people think?

Continue reading “Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin… Of cancel culture (and other scary beasts)”